Saturday 1 October 2016

History is moving before our very eyes to a coming together of Civil War enemies

Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30

'You can quibble around the edges, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially centrist, catch-all parties – moderate, mildly conservative, perhaps, but far from reactionary.'
'You can quibble around the edges, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially centrist, catch-all parties – moderate, mildly conservative, perhaps, but far from reactionary.'

If the opinion polls stay as they are, it seems only a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition will have the required number of seats to form a government. The odds on this happening are just 7/4. They'd be even lower but for Fianna Fáil's categorical insistence that it won't do business with its old enemy.

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But the question hanging on many lips is how different, in reality, are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil? Traditionally, it has been more about nuances.

Fine Gael was the party that always put the State first. Fianna Fáil was more about the nation.

Fine Gael may have been seen as more south County Dublin; more law library and a little more right-wing. But since the 1960s, it has had liberal leanings and its coalition partner has always been the Labour Party, while Fianna Fáil spent 15 years in government with the PDs.

Looking through the years, it is very much a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The new Dáil will meet on Thursday, March 10 - 90 years on, almost to the very day, from the famous ard fheis when de Valera broke from Sinn Féin and left to set up Fianna Fáil. Three years earlier, pro-treaty figures had done the same in setting up Cumann Na nGaedheal, now Fine Gael.

How apt it would be if March 10 proved to be the day when the two breakaway political groupings - who between them have led every government - came back together in a coalition, leaving Sinn Féin, the party whence they both came, leading the opposition.

There is certainly an irony that in the centenary of 1916 - despite all that has happened in the past 100 years - it seems that only some combination of the three political forces that emerged from the Irish Volunteers' Rising can form a government.

The history is important, though, because, when examining the differences between the three parties that will dominate the next Dáil, they are mainly historical. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael emerged from the bitter division over the Treaty. Sinn Féin, the hardline rump, was subsequently left behind and on the margins - until now.

But getting back to the present, Fianna Fáil has been ridiculed in the media for its stance and accused of rendering itself irrelevant in the election campaign. Yet there was no easy choice for the party.

The idea that Fianna Fáil could credibly campaign to kick out the current Government, with a call for greater fairness, while at the same time being coy about the option of coalition with Fine Gael, was always simplistic. And, contrary to the groupthink, Fianna Fáil has been far from irrelevant in the election campaign.

Strategically, it made sense for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil to carve out a point of difference between it and Fine Gael.

If the latter was going to trumpet stability, Martin would pay the fairness card - one that was always likely to get traction with an electorate that has shifted leftwards.

But getting back to what separates Fianna Fáil from Fine Gael, there are no great shafts of daylight.

Fianna Fáil probably had a better feel for the North but Fine Gael delivered the Anglo-Irish Agreement. And while Fianna Fáil traditionally had the edge on economic competence, that was blown away by the 2008 economic crash.

Fine Gael prided itself on having greater probity than Fianna Fáil, as epitomised by the rivalry between 'Garret the Good' and Charlie Haughey. But very few political parties, any more than the people that populate them, are pure as the driven snow and how much of the characterisation was because Fianna Fáil, as the party generally in power, inevitably attracted more chancers?

Micheál Martin has painted Fine Gael as a right-wing party, concerned only with looking after the better-off. It's a legitimate electoral tactic, but does it stand up to scrutiny? We're hardly talking the Republican Party in the US here or even the Conservatives in the UK.

You can quibble around the edges, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially centrist, catch-all (these days 'catch-some' might be more accurate) parties - moderate, mildly conservative, perhaps, but far from reactionary.

Leave out history - always difficult here - and the normal and healthy desire of all political parties for self-preservation and advancement, and it's hard to think why the two parties couldn't coalesce harmoniously.

Are the likes of Simon Harris, Michael Noonan, Frances Fitzgerald much different in outlook from Michael McGrath, Dara Calleary and Billy Kelleher? Hardly.

That's not to understate the practical difficulties involved, particularly for Fianna Fáil. It is understandably worried about leaving the opposition benches free for Sinn Féin by jumping into bed with Fine Gael.

It is also concerned that going in as the junior partner - as it surely would - would set a precedent that might be hard to shake.

And then there's the trenchant nature of Martin's rejection of coalition with Fine Gael (not, interestingly, replicated on Sunday by Enda Kenny).

The days of getting away with saying one thing in an election campaign and doing the exact opposite after polling day are over.

That's a big stumbling block. But if it could be portrayed as a decision made hugely reluctantly in the interests of ensuring a stable government in the national interest, it may perhaps not be an insurmountable one.

We can already anticipate the narrative: "The recovery has been hard won. The worry is that without a cohesive, centrist government, it will be easily lost."

Unless there is a very big shift in the electorate between now and Friday week (which shouldn't yet be ruled out) the pressure for a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition is only going to intensify.

Shane Coleman presents 'The Sunday Show' on newstalk.com at 10am

Irish Independent

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